The digital native that she is, eight-year-old Hirranya Rajani, with her experience of building an app and multiple skirmishes with pesky bugs, takes no time to break it down. “Coding is like, say, your friend comes home and asks for a glass of water. You are busy. She doesn’t know your house, and you have to tell her how to go about it, step by step. Tell her where the glass of water is kept, which way to turn till she gets there . . . Coding is like that, communicating with your computer and telling it what to do, and how to do it,” she says. For over a year, Hirranya has been learning the elements of the language on the ed-tech coding platform, WhiteHat Jr, that helps her do just that. To her, loops, conditional statements and variables are not bits of an arcane language but a part of a new toolkit. Hirranya’s mother Kavita Rajani, an electronics engineer who introduced her to coding before enrolling her in WhiteHat Jr, believes her training is a “necessity of the time”. “She definitely sees it as a career. This way, she is becoming someone useful for the industry,” she says. Once the dimly-lit realm of socially awkward nerds happy to spend hours in front of computers, coding is being pitched as a new interactive playground for children as young as six. But it’s not all play. The sights, in fact, are set on work, which, even if far away, is predicted to be disrupted by automation and artificial intelligence (AI). “Coding will become an essential language for all children, and not just those who do computer science,” says Anand Prakash, co-founder of Vedantu, an ed-tech startup which started live one-on-one coding classes for children in May this year.
The barrage of shiny ads that follow us on our screens make far more immodest claims -from sharpening left-brain skills to switching on a child’s creativity or turning her into Bill Gates. The leader of the pack is Karan Bajaj’s WhiteHat Jr, which was founded in 2018 and sold in August to ed-tech giant BYJU’s in a $300 million deal. Bajaj, who congratulates himself on “creating a category”, says, “Kids who code early start thinking of themselves as people who can create. In the future, you can either be a creator or a consumer of technology. If you are a creator, you are set for a powerful life,” says Bajaj. About four million children tried out the classes on WhiteHat Jr, and 1.2 lakh currently learn coding on the platform. “65 per cent of our students are outside India’s top 15 cities,” says Bajaj. The classes are not cheap (48 classes cost Rs 35,000 in a beginner’s module.) “Unlike in other co-curricular things, aspirational parents see a clear pathway to the future in coding,” says Prakash. The National Education Policy, too, recommends introducing coding in school, though only to older children (Class VI and above).
If coding is the new literacy, why would you not want your child to read and write? But Monojit Choudhury, principal researcher at Microsoft Research Lab, India, was reluctant to initiate his son Medhajit, 9, into programming. “As parents, we wanted him to be drawn to nature, birds and insects. But he was very curious about digital devices,” says the Bengaluru-based scientist. Medhajit’s persistence, however, led Choudhury to agree to teach his son the basics of Python. “I was hoping he would give it up if we did it the hard way,” he says. But Medhajit’s grasp was quick, his interest unflagging, and Choudhury ended up buying him a micro:bit.
In 2015, the BBC micro:bit, a tiny, pocket-size programmable computer was distributed free to thousands of schoolchildren in the UK in the hope of eventually solving the shortage of skilled tech workers in the UK. On the microbit.org website, children use attractive interfaces like drag-and-drop blocks to write code. “It is a very visual way of coding. Once you code in blocks, you can go to another tab and see the corresponding Java Script/Python code,” says Choudhury.
Like the Hour of Code, a non-profit campaign to draw more American students into computer science, the BBC’s campaign was aimed at immersing a new generation into the shallow end of technology, hoping they learn not to be afraid of the water, even if they do not become swimmers. The efforts built on the work of researchers at the MIT Media Lab, who in 2007 had developed Scratch, an app that teaches children (8-16) how to code. Bits of code are represented by colourful blocks that have to be snapped in place on a screen like a jigsaw puzzle. “Children can start by simply tinkering with the bricks, snapping them together in different sequences and combinations to see what happens. There is none of the obscure syntax or punctuation of traditional programming languages,” wrote Mitchel Resnick and his team in a 2009 paper, Scratch: Programming for All.
Sure enough, in a few weeks after getting his hands on a micro:bit, Medhajit was learning on his own, toggling between the website and the device, to create easy games and light sensors. “Children find it interesting because it is tangible, almost like you are building apps,” says Choudhury.
For all the evangelism of catching them young – Apple CEO Tim Cook is on record asking that coding be made compulsory in American public schools – there exists a strong critique of the approach in the West. In 2017, Larry Cuban, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, called such attempts a new “vocationalism”, which narrows the purpose of education into creating new workers for a changing economy rather than well-rounded humans or responsible citizens. “The strong smell of Silicon Valley self-interest accompanies these proposals…[they] lament the need to outsource coding . . . and import software engineers from India . . . But these technical jobs represent less than three per cent of the workforce,” he argued.
Choudhury, too, remains sceptical about coding as a magic tool. “My personal opinion is it is quite overhyped. Learning a computer language, once you know the basics, is very easy. If a child is pushed into it too early, it might trigger a fear, much like the phobia of math,” he says. What he would recommend, instead, is nudging children towards a habit of “computational thinking”. “It’s about being attentive to how things happen, how to think stepwise. It’s actually all around us – even in how you bake a cake,” says Choudhury. Now, what could baking a cake have to do with algorithms? Writing a recipe, say programmers, involves breaking down a task into small steps, arranging them into the right sequence or algorithm (think of what would happen if you whisked butter and flour, and added sugar later) so that others can follow it to reach the same result. “Coding has not come down from Mars. It involves basic logic and reasoning, all of which is covered in a regular scientific curriculum,” says Arvind Gupta, educator and inventor known to advocate that children learn by working with their hands.
Coding, say experts, is a narrower form of skill, embedded in a larger, immensely more exciting domain of thought. “Programming is just mechanics,” says Professor Ramesh Loganathan of the International Institute of Information Technology (IIIT), Hyderabad. One of India’s premier institutes of computer science, IIIT started a summer workshop for children in Classes VII-X on “computational thinking” in 2014. “We were certain we didn’t want anything to do with programming. As it is, our students are too focussed on maths and engineering in their school years,” says Loganathan. Aghast at a system that was “creating zombies and exam-taking machines”, Loganathan and his colleagues wanted to prod students towards “a problem-solving approach that can be used in the analysis of a social problem or music or economics.”
In its fifth edition last year, the workshop was rolled out as a pilot in a Navodaya Vidyalaya in Gopanpally, Hyderabad, to include a more diverse community of students. Eighty students of Class VIII used elements of computational thinking to solve tasks as varied as imagining yourself as a tour guide and devising a Hyderabad itinerary, analysing the problem of gender inequality in sports news reporting, and creating a pidgin language. “We don’t want them all of them to become computer engineers,” says Loganathan.
The machines are coming, we have been told. Jobs of today will disappear in the future. How will the children cope? “By being proficient at multiple things and knowing how to cross boundaries. A designer has to be a technologist and vice-versa,” says Madhumita Nandi Srivastava, an art educator and an MFA in design and technology from Parsons School of Design, New York. The vaccine for the disruption of the future cannot come only from learning a programming language. “The approach is to make it trans-disciplinary and not tech-heavy. The ‘why’ that was missing from an older pedagogy is also missing now,” says Shilpa Sharma, science teacher at Ascent International School, Mumbai.
Just as children learn to read and write better when they connect it to their life experiences and see it as a way of self-expression, that “why” might fall into place when it becomes a way to tell their own stories. A couple of months ago, Sharma and Srivastava designed a workshop in which children created art, stories and games to express some of the tumult of living through a pandemic. “Coding is writing a set of instructions to realise a creative vision. First, you need to be able to have that vision and imagination,” says Srivastava. They nudged students towards owning their imagination the old-fashioned way, creating fantastic characters on pen and paper – which was then used to create stories on Scratch. The capacity to close the loop, from idea to execution, is the magic of coding, says Srivastava. Both warn against pushing children into a race. “If your child is not interested, she will definitely get by,” says Srivastava.
Many educators fear that ed-tech coding startups are replicating the frenzy of India’s infamous IIT-JEE coaching factories. “Coding is not the answer to life and will not make you a Steve Jobs. When tech giants fuel such unrealistic expectations, it is far more dangerous than institutes who can influence 500 people at most,” says Abhishek Gupta, co-founder of NavGurukul, a higher-education alternative that runs one-year-long coding bootcamps in Bengaluru and Pune for students from marginalised communities.
The tradeoffs are not insignificant. “All child psychologists say we should reduce screentime for children. That blocks, Lego and puzzles remain the best way to develop a child’s cognitive powers has been proved over and over again,” says Gupta.
The unknowability of the future is precisely what should stop parents from forcing children into narrow skills. Choudhury of Microsoft Research lab points to GPT-3, a language generator developed in a San Francisco artificial intelligence research lab, which recently “wrote” an oped for The Guardian. GPT-3 can create anything that is akin to a language, including code. “How to write a conditional statement, how to write a loop will be doable by AI eventually,” says Choudhury. But AI will struggle with what humans can do: “Decide what needs to be done. Design a system and determine if it is scalable,” he adds.
In a meeting with various stakeholders held last year, Choudhury was asked if school curriculums should change to tackle the challenge of AI. “My answer was that we don’t know whether it is AI or biotechnology or quantum computing that will be important in 15 years. Our best bet is not to focus on one technology. When you are preparing for a future no one knows about, you should prepare for everything. Make the children flexible, teach them to take on challenges, solve problems and adapt to new technologies. Often, this is not an answer many are happy with.”
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